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The Saga of Kosovo
The Saga of Kosovo

  

 

The Serbian Revolution and Albanians


At the beginning of the 19th century the Balkan peninsula was a "powder keg" and Serbia with its uprisings (1804 and 1815) was the "fuse." The Serbs were soaring upward, carried on the wings of national liberation, and the Greeks were not far behind. The Albanians, pulled down by the weight of the aging Ottoman Empire, nevertheless realized that the Serbs and Greeks could not be held down. Should they try to stop the Serbs or should they join them and turn against Constantinople? They were undecided, mainly for reasons discussed in the previous chapter.

To the Serbs, the uprising under their peasant leader, "Black George" (Karadjordje), was a repeat performance of what the Serbs did under Nemanja some seven long centuries earlier. They realized that with the "sick man" in Constantinople, the moment for the leap to independence was at hand. But to the Albanians any "leap" would have had to be out of Constantinople, where they were providing honor guards for the Sultan, and performing many administrative tasks. The Serbs were in their days of Genesis; the Albanians felt carried by the flood of a terminal Deluge. Would the two nations, which earlier had had a hard time finding a common language, be able to join hands now? The Great Powers, for different reasons, were not interested in having Albanians and Serbs living in peace. Austria wanted to build an Albanian wall between the Serbs and Montenegrins that would prevent their unification. Italy did not want more Slavs in the region of "mare nostrum." Turks wanted to have a Moslem foothold against Austria's southern expansion. Russia was interested in exploiting the Balkan situation so that it could open a second front--if necessary--in its wars against Turkey. The Vatican wanted to complete its long term task of pushing Orthodoxy out of the littoral. For the Balkan "pawns" it was difficult,,if not impossible, to bridge the abyss and resist being sulked into the whirlpool.

In the early part of the 19th century, both Montenegrins and Northern Albanians had their sights fixed on what was happening to the north. For nine crucial years the Serbs battled the Turkish armies (1804-1813), and only two years later after being "pacified" they rose again. These two open insurrections sent shock waves throughout the Balkans and central Europe. Leopold Ranke, a German historian, published a book about these uprisings under the title, Die Serbische Revolution (1829). "The Serbian Homer," as he liked to call himself, wrote about the "seeds" that were sown, which raised many eyebrows from Petersburg to London. In those capitals, the "Eastern Question" was now compounded by the "Serbian Question," an unknown factor in international politics.

Overnight, the Serbs got a taste of international politics. The Russians sent a message to their Slav brothers: Just think what you and we can achieve together. To the delight of Karadjordje, a Russian general arrived at the Serbian front with a token force of 1,000 troops. The battle of Shtubik (1807) was their first common military victory against the Turks. But after Austerlitz, as Napoleon tied the hands of the Russians (Peace of Tilsit), the Serbs were left alone to face the unrushing Moslems. Black George was fuming angry at the Russians, and their representative in Belgrade, Rodofinikin, found it advisable to remove himself temporarily from the city by crossing the river to the Austrian town of Zemun. In 1810, Karadjordje sent his delegate, Rado Vuchinich, to Napoleon, who gave him a cold shoulder. In 1813, Karadjordje crossed the river himself as Serbia's dream was crushed.

Nevertheless, in the popular mind, Karadjordje came to be viewed as the avenger of the Serbs' defeat at Kosovo. As the courageous leader of the Serbs' first uprising that was to lead to Serbia's resurrection, he became and remained a Serbian hero, a Serbian George Washington.

It was not any easier for the leader of the second uprising (1815), Milosh Obrenovich. He gathered his peasant "elite" in Takovo and told them it would bc tough going. He insisted on one thing: absolute obcdicncc and a final say in decision making. Since hc was thc onc who got them into the mess, and who disposccl ol substantial means, and was the only one who knew the potential of his secret dealings with the Turks, the "elite" had no choice but to agree. Soon he had domestic challenges to his absolutism, and foreign powers gave him a taste of international politics. When he went to pay his respects to the Sultan--some years after the success of the uprising--whom does he meet at the Bosporus but the Russian ambassador, Buteniev. The Sultan gave Milosh an expensive sabre, a beautiful horse, and six artillery guns; the Russian ambassador invited Milosh "to have lunch on his frigate." The Austrian envoy, not to be outdone, went a step further: he offered as a token of high recognition, to send "one person with appropriate staff to open an office in Belgrade." Flattered, Milosh accepted the offer and informed the Sultan, who agreed, and told Buteniev about it, who "said nothing, but just kept his silence."

Soon the Austrian consul, Mr. Meanevich, arrived in Belgrade, and brought to Milosh not one but two Iron Crosses of the First Order. In no time, the British envoy, "with his personal flag," announced himself. Puzzled, Milosh admits, "I had no idea foreign courts will start sending those consuls." Soon the web of international intrigues was all over the semi-autonomous Turkish province of Serbia. "Never did I want to get rid of the Russians, so that I could join the British," protests the indignant Milosh, "nor is it true that the British ever offered me a million ducats to come over to their side." But Milosh suspected that British Consul Hodges was the source of the rumor, because he was "a person of no character and a blabbermouth."

"My greatest mistake," says Milosh in his memoirs, "was in allowing the representative of Mr. Metternich to come here to open his office . . . but, in spite of all the headaches I had with the consuls, I managed continuously to improve the welfare of my province... "

Milosh apparently did not feel that all foreigners were a "headache," as he cultivated relations with Marashli Ali Pasha, the Vizier of Belgrade who was delegated by the Sultan to formulate the details of Serbia's new status in the Ottoman Empire. In dealing with the Sultan's delegate, Milosh's most powerful "argument" was a discreet but generous bribing. He looked out for the influential, sometimes anti-government Moslems, mainly those who were willing to compromise their allegiance. In this way, Milosh opened one door after another, and obtained what he wanted without spilling the blood of his people.

One Albanian who sought Milosh's friendship was the vizier of Skadar, Mustafa Pasha Bushatlija. He maintained that he was a descendant of the old Montenegrin Crnojevich family, and had dynastic ambitions. He was one of two mighty Albanian pashas (the other being Ali Pasha of Tepelena) who resisted the central Turkish government of Sultan Mahmud II. Both of them were eyeing Milosh's successful tactics, especially since they wanted what Milosh had: a hereditary principality. Montenegro's ruler, Bishop Petar Petrovich - Njegosh I was not enthusiastic about Milosh's dealings with Bushatlija, for obvious reasons: the latter's claim to being a Crnojevich descendant would give him some claim to Montenegrin lands as well.

Milosh clearly grasped the benefits for the Serbian state in any kind of Moslem opposition to Turkish rule. Anyone challenging the power of the Porte could be sure to attract his attention, regardless of motives. The more trouble the Porte faced, the more it would be willing to negotiate with Milosh. When through his correspondence with Mustafa, Milosh learned that the Sultan was requiring Mustafa to send 60,000 Albanians to fight the Russians, Milosh advised stalling tactics, and avoiding direct contacts with Russian troops. The Porte knew of Milosh's correspondence with Bushatlija, through the reports of its own spies, and Milosh almost got into trouble as Mustafa was militarily defeated by a Turkish expeditionary force, when the Russo-Turkish war was over (1829). Due to Austria's intervention Mustafa's life was saved and he continued to live in Constantinople.

This experience made Milosh even more cautious when another Moslemized Christian, Bosnian bey Hussein Gradashchevich, decided to challenge the authority of the Sultan. Hussein came to Kosovo to meet the Sultan's troops (July 1831), and defeated the Turkish "pacification" task force. He looked for help from Milosh, but Milosh did not think Hussein had a chance. Milosh was just winning his first battles in diplomacy with the Turks, and did not want to risk losing the concessions he had already obtained from the Porte. The following year, Hussein was defeated in a battle near Sarajevo, and fled to Austria.

Milosh had no use for Albanians (he used the Turkish term Arnauti), and shared the feeling of most Serbs that they were the worst of all the "Turks." One of Milosh's priorities was to get rid of all the converted Moslems, whether formerly Serbs or Albanians, as soon as possible. Two cities, Chuprija and Aleksinats, seem to have been popular with Albanians. Milosh was resolute, and through a combination of pressures and fiscal compensation, he responded to the pleas of ethnic Turks in Chuprija to help them get rid of the Albanians.

The Serbs made a clear distinction between Turks and Albanians. Turks made up a majority of city dwellers, and were landholders or engaged in crafts. The Albanians were a minority and a sort of Moslem proletariat. Both Turks and Serbs referred to Albanians in terms that were usually reserved for the scum of society. They were called "criminals," "brigands," and "murderers," which did not help in restoring social tranquility and inter-ethnic relations.

In Milosh's time, Turks were leaving en masse. Being men of property or professional skills, they were not paupers and had somewhere to go. Not so the Albanians.

As the 19th century progressed, it became ever more evident that the Moslem "aristocracy" in the Balkans was doomed. The more they realized it, the more evident the gap between the landowners (Turks) and the peasants (Christians). As the peasants liberated themselves from working for Turks, they became individual producers, traded with the cities, and even moved to the cities. Many of them received training in various crafts or otherwise entered commerce. The "Turkish" towns of the Balkans began getting an ever greater segment of Slav professionals. The commercial Christian sections began booming, while the Turkish aristocracy wards were decaying as they were losing their material base. Cities like Skoplje, Prilep, Prizren, Ohrid, Bitolj, Solun were attracting dynamic and aggressive Christian, Jewish, Greek, and Armenian elements.

Economically, the tables were turned against the Turks: in an open society they were losing their land; in the cities they were not securing for themselves the lucrative prospects of the new capitalism on the march. They were sitting there, grumbling, smoking their "chibuks" and drinking coffee, watching Christians taking the initiative. To their dismay, the elegant needle-like minarets were being joined by baroque towers, to them an unbearable sight, spoiling the skyline of "their" Moslem cities.

Albanians, a much more aggressive segment of the Balkan Moslem world, could not just sit by and watch the Christians take over. Yet, they faced a two-front "war." On the one side were the Serbs, cocky and confident, and assertive. On the other front was the Turkish "protector," who dispensed not protection but imposed new restrictions and made new demands and obligations. But Albanians were ill-prepared to stand up to the Serbs and to Constantinople at the same time. They had no central authority to coordinate their actions, no unified ideological philosophy, and no clearly defined national program.

With the passage of time, relations between Serbs and Albanians, instead of becoming more conciliatory, were getting worse. As the Serbian state was growing in size and political importance in Balkans affairs, Albanian fears of "Serbian Imperialism" grew apace. Serbia needed its own port on the Adriatic coast, so that it would not have to depend on Austrian good will for its economic development. The natural way to this port was through Montenegro. Realizing this, Austria in its 19th century diplomatic efforts, tried with partial success to create a political and military zone between the two Serbian states. Albanians were to play a large role in this Austrian scheme. Serbian historian Slobodan Jovanovich says that Albanians had to be "the wall" between the Montenegrins and the Serbs.

Three important men in these two Serbian states were painfully aware of the role assigned to Albania. They were the Montenegrin Prince-Bishop Petar Petrovich Njegosh II, the Serbian Prince Mihailo Obrenovich, and Serbia's political giant, Ilija Garashanin.

Ruling over the barely literate warriors in the mountains--the eerie of the eagles--was the Miltonian poet, romanticist, and classicist, Petar Petrovich-Njegosh II, the spiritual and secular leader of Montenegro. This tall and handsome man was told of politics: "Pray to God and stick with the Russians," the political credo he heard at the deathbed of his predecessor. Njegosh must have wondered. He must have recalled that as a young man he visited Russia and was well received by Catherine II, but not so well by the mighty Prince Potemkin, who threw him out of the country (Serbian historian Stanoje Stanojevich says that Njegosh "swore never again to set foot on Russian soil").

Njegosh had no love for his Moslemized Slav brothers, and approved of the Christmas eve massacre of the converted Montenegrins, mentioned in a previous chapter. He once wrote to the vizier of Skadar, who was of Slav blood: "When you talk to me as a Bosnian, I am your brother, your friend. But when you talk to me as a stranger, as an Asian, as an enemy of our tribe and our name, to me this is adverse." Njegosh knew that the only lasting thing in this cosmos is change. He knew that once large powers such as Austria and Turkey were toppled, there would be room for the development of a South Slav brotherhood. He spent a good deal of time in the Doge's library in Venice, and had "five or six secretaries transcribing for three weeks everything in the archives that had anything to do with South Slavism." At Cetinje (1845), the English visitor, Sir Gardner Wilkinson, had difficulty in fathoming Njegosh, whose hobby was shooting lemons thrown in the air, and who could elaborate on philosophy and transcendental themes while watching the heads of decapitated Turks on the wall in Cetinje. The visitor from London Tower was horrified!

When asked what he would do if his dream was realized in his lifetime, the Bishop said wistfully: "in that case I would go to my patriarchate in Pech, and Serbian Prince Mihailo to Prizren" (the priest to the See of the Serbian spiritual leader, the securer ruler to the city of Dushan's aura).

Serbia's Prince Mihailo Obrenovich (Milosh's son), educated abroad and of poetic inclination, was just as much of a romantic, a dreamer, and a compulsive visionary as Njegosh. Slobodan Jovanovich says: "Mihailo's plans were not devoid of fantasies, they were too ambitious and skyreaching... His belief in the heroism of the Serbian people, his confidence in one general Balkan uprising, his persuasion that the Turkish Empire can be destroyed in one blow--all this is pure political romanticism... Never have Serbs been so proud, and never have they believed so strongly in their own historic mission" (Druga vlada Milosa i Mihaila [Second reign of... | Belgrade, 1923, p. 263).

Mihailo's rule was short-lived, but inspirational. In a sense, his appearance reminds one of America's JFK era. He ignited the nationalist flame that spread far beyond the borders of that day's Serbia. It was an all-Slav flame, shared by South Slav young intellectuals, and even by a Roman Catholic Bishop in Djakovo (Croatia), Juraj Strosmayer, who founded the Yugoslav Academy in Zagreb in 1867. The Bishop and the Prince carried on an extensive correspondence on the formation of a "Yugoslav State," and the Slav visitors in Belgrade coffee houses were fraternizing with Serbian youths, verbalizing about the "Balkan federation."

How did Albanians fit into this prevailing mood of Montenegro and Serbia? Not very well, if at all. When one consults the political realist of the caliber of llija Garashanin, Mihailo's foreign minister, Albanians were a big "nuissance." Garashanin's name indicated that he was a village man (Garashi), but his thinking was as international as Talleyrand's or Metternich's. He knew that ultimately only "united South Slavs" could prevent foreigners (Austria and Russia) from moving into the vacuum created by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. He knew the importance of having Greeks and Albanians on the side of the Slavs. He had no illusions about Russian politics in the Balkans, but he could see where Russian and Serbian political interests could coincide.

Garashanin knew that Austria thought otherwise. In 1853 he wrote to his friend, Serbian diplomat Marinovich: "Austria will never support the progress of Serbia... It would be stupid to think any other way." He was positive of Austria's inimical attitude, for the simple reason that it had such a large Slav population within its own borders. Scared of provocation, Austria would watch out for anything that could stir the Slavs. Garashanin advised Mihailo to do everything possible to win the Albanians over to the Serbian side, or at least to neutralize them. Not to view them as Turks, but to "endeavor to persuade them to secede from the Turks." This would be no easy task, said Garashanin, because they were dealing with people who could neither read nor write, and who were prone to suspicion. Garashanin was fully aware of secret accomodations made by Russia and Austria with Turkey--the whole game of "spheres of interest," and the negative role the Albanians were assigned in that game. That is why Belgrade diplomacy and Serbian money in the 1860s were very active among Albanian leaders, especially the Catholics of Northern Albania, to get them away from Italian and Austrian influence. Five separate Albanian tribal leaders were Garashanin's guests in Belgrade in one year.

Had Garashanin been successful, had he indeed talked the Albanians into rebelling, would the estrangement process been turned around? Without much doubt. Had Prince Mihailo's life dream not been brutally interrupted by an assassin's bullet (another similarity with JFK) in 1868, the Balkan "powder-keg" would probably have exploded long before Albanian atrocities had gone too far to be easily glossed over. But mistrust between the two peoples deepened, and anti-Serbian policies of the foreign powers were too deeply entrenched for little Serbia to handle alone. Who knows, had the "keg" exploded some years before Austria went into Bosnia, Hercegovina, and the Sandjak, perhaps Bishop Njegosh and Prince Mihailo would have ended up in Pech and Prizren respectively. And Serbs and Albanians might have had a better chance of being friendly neighbors, at least "Balkan style."

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